Clockwise from upper right: Attorney General Jeff Landry, former DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson, Lake Charles attorney Hunter Lundy, Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana President Steven Procopio, former Louisiana Association of Business and Industry CEO Stephen Waguespack, state Rep. Richard Nelson, state Sen. Sharon Hewitt and Louisiana Treasurer John Schroder take part in the PAR governor’s candidates forum Wednesday, April 26, 2023, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Baton Rouge. (Photos by Matthew Pershall for Louisiana Illuminator)
All seven of the well funded candidates for Louisiana governor agree more public money should be invested on early childhood education. Nearly all believe the state should maintain the expanded Medicaid coverage offered to qualifying residents seven years ago.
Beyond that, they expressed fairly similar broad visions for the state under their leadership, with some slight philosophical differences, during a forum the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana (PAR) hosted Wednesday at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Baton Rouge. The format placed the candidates in a roughly 12-minute question-and-answer session with PAR President Stephen Procopio, including a “rapid-fire” round that required only a yes or no answer.
Some questions were also tailored to the candidate’s background. For example, former Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) CEO Stephen Waguespack was asked whether he would keep intact Gov. John Bel Edwards’ executive orders that gave local taxing authorities say-so over the Industrial Tax Exemption Program (ITEP). Before they were issued in 2016, companies received a 100% break on local property taxes with the approval of the appointed Board of Commerce and Industry. In addition to local approval, Edwards lowered the exemption to 80%.
If elected, Waguespack said he would take away local decision-making power but would keep the ITEP benefit at 80%. Local officials to whom he has presented the idea have been open to it, he added.
The alternative leaves companies deciding whether to locate in Louisiana or in another state with questions about their future tax liability here, Waguespack said.
“We’re going to war with question marks,” he said.
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Treasurer John Schroder was the only candidate not to commit to retaining Louisiana’s expanded Medicaid coverage. Another of Edwards’ first moves upon taking office was to accept the additional federal health insurance benefits that former Gov. Bobby Jindal had turned down.
“Maybe,” Schroder said when asked about retaining the status quo with Medicaid.
As of April 4, more than 770,000 Louisiana residents have been added to state Medicaid rolls since 2016, according to the state health department. Some 2 million people in the state, about 42% of its population, are covered by Medicaid, although a purge of those added during the COVID-19 pandemic could remove more than 200,000, health officials said.
Schroder, Hewitt take potshots
The one-on-one interview format didn’t allow for direct jabs from candidates against their competition, but Schroder made an unfavorable and not-so-subtle link between Waguespack and his former boss.
When asked about how he’d like to change the Louisiana Constitution, Schroder referenced his time in the state House of Representatives when he submitted an amendment that would have removed all constitutional dedications from the state budget.
“That was under…” Schroder paused, allowing PAR’s Procopio to fill in the blank with Gov. Bobby Jindal. But before Procopio could respond, Schroder interjected “Gov. Waguespack,” a suggestion that Waguespack, who was Jindal’s chief of staff and executive counsel, called the shots in the administration.
The lasting legacy of Jindal’s tenure was a $1.6 billion state budget deficit at the end of his eight years in office.
Schroder was also highly critical of budget negotiations under Jindal, calling it a “politically corrupt process.”
“I don’t mean the FBI is showing up, but it’s what the governor’s staff is using to get people in the room to negotiate,” he said, adding that one of Jindal’s key advisers would walk around the room with a baseball bat. Schroder said he didn’t feel threatened, but the message from the administration was clear.
State Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, landed a glancing blow on Attorney General Jeff Landry, whom she followed on the forum stage.
“I was waiting to hear the attorney general’s great vision for Louisiana,” Hewitt said, referencing a phrase Landry repeated but didn’t expand beyond his plans to address violent crime.
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Crime and education
The candidates touched on the issue of crime but largely weren’t pressed to provide specific strategies.
Landry was critical of Edwards’ criminal justice policy changes that have removed and redirected nonviolent offenders from the state corrections system. He argued not enough has been done to curtail repeat violent offenders or steer young people away from bad choices.
“The goal should never be how we let people out of jail. The goal should be how we keep people from going to jail,” Landry said.
Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, said the criminal justice changes Edwards has made have been “used as a punching bag” by critics, who should instead address the fundamental issues behind the spate of violent crime across Louisiana. He stressed additional investment in education as well as “swift and certain justice, not just long (prison) sentences.”
Retired state Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson, the lone Democrat among the frontrunners, and Waguespack provided the most detailed platforms on education.
Wilson said Louisiana is well behind other states when it comes to integrating its educational system with workforce needs. By the time students reach high school, they should be aware of all their post-secondary options.
“If they want to get out at the 11th and 12th grade and get a job and start a business, we ought to help them do that,” Wilson said.
Waguespack called for a “redesign” of Louisiana high schools that would lay out four options for students after graduation: four-year colleges, two-year schools, straight to the workforce or assistance for those with learning, mental health or substance abuse issues.
Education savings accounts, which allow low-income families to move their children out of poor-performing schools, also received Waguespack’s endorsement. He said he and his wife had the means to place their middle son, who is on the autism spectrum, in five different high schools. He’s now enjoying success, and Waguespack said all families should have the same option.
Facing the fiscal cliff
Most of the candidates were asked about what should happen to the 0.45% of the state sales tax that is set to expire in mid-2025. State lawmakers added the portion in 2018 when the state faced financial hard times, with K-12 schools, higher education and public health care vulnerable to extensive cuts.
Republicans begrudgingly extended the tax fraction through the pandemic, but there’s growing sentiment that it should be allowed to go away now that overall state revenue is on an upswing. The state also has $1.8 billion in surplus funds on hand, though most feel the extra money should go toward one-time expenses such as infrastructure projects rather than recurring government expenses.
Independent candidate Hunter Lundy said the state’s surplus should be directed to long-standing, one-time transportation needs.
Wilson said the 0.45% tax was always intended to be temporary, but it shouldn’t be eliminated until the state can “determine what the outcomes are.”
Nelson called the end of the 0.45% tax an opportunity for the state to revise its tax structure, giving him another chance to rally for his plan to eliminate the state income tax. The legislature voted down his package of bills that would have overhauled Louisiana’s tax system.
The other candidates were more explicit in calling for the 0.45% to expire, with Hewitt saying in an off-hand way that she has a bullish outlook for the state’s revenue picture.
“We’re not really good at forecasting our revenue, so I think we sit back and wait rather than renew the tax,” she said.
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